‘We had no clue’: With little zoning, a gravel pit is proposed for a Mat-Su neighborhood

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MEADOW LAKES — Roger Oliver’s home sale was in the final stretch in early May.

Then the proposed gravel pit surfaced next to Oliver’s backyard, and with it prospects for heavy industry on 160 forested acres rimmed by subdivisions and dozens of homes.

In mid-May, notices went out to more than 270 landowners within a half-mile of the site, bounded by residential properties on three sides and a mix of commercial and residential on the fourth.

Oliver’s home deal fell through.

“I have it in writing. They backed out because of the proposed gravel pit,” he said in a recent interview. “You just don’t go in and put it in a neighborhood like that.”

Oliver is one of numerous residents off South Sylvan Road in Meadow Lakes calling on the Matanuska-Susitna Borough to deny the permit that operators need to proceed. Concerns range from road safety to decimated property values with one common thread: A gravel pit doesn’t belong in a residential area.

The situation is complicated, however, by the borough’s lack of zoning and the location of the pit on Alaska Mental Health Trust Authority lands.

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In Mat-Su, gravel is like rocky gray gold deposited by glaciers retreating up broad river valleys. There are more than 100 active permitted pits across the borough.

Mat-Su officials never approved a tax to derive municipal revenues from gravel extraction. The borough also generally has few, if any, zoning laws that limit industrial operations like gravel pits to certain areas away from neighborhoods.

The Sylvan Road pit is moving through a conditional-use permitting process that culminates with a borough planning commission hearing this month.

Pit plans

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Today, white signs reading “NO GRAVEL PIT” sprout in yards along South Sylvan Road.

The pit is proposed by Quality Asphalt Paving and parent company Colaska Inc., part of the international Colas Group. Colaska owns more than 1,300 acres of land across the Mat-Su, according to borough property records.

Neighbors point out that Quality Asphalt already has a large gravel pit nearby, just off the Parks Highway and in close proximity to a road project the company successfully bid in the area.

Plans submitted to the borough call for the removal of up to 2 million cubic yards of gravel — enough to fill 612 Olympic swimming pools — from a 105-acre area of the parcel over a 20-year period, with a portable asphalt plant operating at times.

At most, there could be 500 trucks making 1,000 daily trips to and from the pit, though the application indicates that’s not an average or constant number.

QAP plans to erect earthen berms at least 10 feet tall to block noise and to limit loud rock crushing and screening operations to between 7 a.m. and 7 p.m., according to an application a consultant filed with the borough in February. Test holes down to 10 or 15 feet didn’t hit water. Extraction is expected to extend 20 to 30 feet below the surface.

The property is owned by the Alaska Mental Health Trust Authority, a state corporation that’s required to use its roughly 1 million acres of land holdings to generate money for “beneficiaries”: Alaskans experiencing a development disability, mental illness, substance use disorder, traumatic brain injury or Alzheimer’s disease or related dementia.

The trust operates like a private foundation, “using its resources to ensure that Alaska has a comprehensive integrated mental health program,” according to its mission. Money is paid out via grants to programs benefiting trust beneficiaries, including annual grants to state and local governments, nonprofits and tribal organizations.

Gravel mining on Sylvan Road over 20 years could generate nearly $1.6 million for the trust, according to Wyn Menefee, director of the trust’s land office.

‘Location, location, location’

Across Mat-Su, the trust owns 66,000 acres of lands that can be used for any purpose — including gravel — that can generate revenue. It owns another 103,000 acres in subsurface oil, gas and mineral holdings.

The office is under a “fiduciary obligation” to make decisions in the best interest of the trust and its beneficiaries, not the best interest of the public, Menefee said. It’s the Matanuska-Susitna Borough’s job to address community concerns through its permitting process.

The company wants to use the Sylvan Road site at least initially to supply sand and gravel for Parks Highway construction projects, according to the application.

Menefee this week said he’s been trying to increase revenues for the trust by planning material sales like this one near road projects.

So last year he approached companies bidding for a big Parks Highway construction project that starts at Pittman Road across the highway from Sylvan and extends to Big Lake. Any lease would benefit the trust with revenue, he explained, and getting gravel so near the project cuts transportation costs for the state Department of Transportation.

“We had land that was sitting there not making money for the Trust,” Menefee said. “Proximity — it’s almost like real estate. Location, location, location. It’s finding the right location for the right project. This happens to be the right location.”

Some neighbors couldn’t disagree more.

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‘There’s neighborhoods on every side’

Meadow Lakes is an unconsolidated community between Wasilla on the east, and Houston and Big Lake on the west, that started as a few wilderness homesteads before statehood and over the decades grew to an increasingly suburban area with a population of more than 8,000.

Joy Bruns’ in-laws homesteaded the subdivision where she lives back in the 1950s. Bruns said she never expected to see a gravel pit proposed for the area.

“I just can’t believe they’re even considering this,” she said. “There’s neighborhoods on every side of this.”

Residents say Sylvan Road, already crumbling in places, can’t handle up to 1,000 truck trips a day.

As planned, the pit driveway would be a half mile from the busy intersection with the Parks Highway as well as a strip mall that includes a charter school, leading to worries about safety and congestion.

A well that serves 14 homes sits on a slice of land next to the pit site, according to Kathleen Koeneman, who is the water operator for her subdivision. She’s concerned ground shaking from gravel operations could cause cloudy water.

Koeneman is one of a number of residents coordinating the opposition to the pit. She is delaying a trip Outside to see her ailing father and declined a wedding invitation because she needs to be home at least until the borough meeting next month.

Koeneman envisions the stress of coming home from her teaching job every day to the noise of heavy industry literally next door.

“Now my advice to somebody when they’re going to buy a house is look at your water, is it good water? And what can they build around you?” she said. “We had no clue. I would assume there was going to be houses back there.”

A state water official said it’s hard to say what, if any, risks a gravel pit brings to local public or private wells.

QAP isn’t planning to extract gravel below the water table according to the permit application, said Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation hydrologist Charley Palmer. “You increase the risk if you’re going into the water table.”

Generally, Palmer encourages people living near gravel pits to apply for water rights and get water tests done.

A plan to guide growth, and an upcoming public hearing

The pit also conflicts with a comprehensive plan locals adopted to guide growth in Meadow Lakes in 2005, according to Patti Fisher, an officer on the Meadow Lakes Community Council.

“Our comp plan states that area is the town center for the future townsite of Meadow Lakes,” Fisher said. “It allows ... commercial, residential, recreation and discourages industry.”

Whether a gravel pit is compatible with the comprehensive plan is one of the standards Mat-Su planning commissioners will weigh in deciding the permit application, said borough planner Mark Whisenhunt.

“We’re still evaluating that,” Whisenhunt said this week.

The plans serve as guides only, he noted. “This isn’t an official zoning document.”

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Bob Coffin, a small contractor who is almost 70, said he understands the need for gravel. He just doesn’t support one on Sylvan, where he owns two rental properties that he’s counting on for retirement income.

The Sylvan site won’t supply the Parks Highway project for long, Coffin said. Instead, it will turn into a “truck conveyor belt” to a railroad siding about 3 miles away that Colaska can use to transport gravel to Anchorage.

“It’s just not suited,” he said. “Basically where it is, it’s surrounded by houses.”

The Matanuska-Susitna Borough Planning Commission will conduct a public hearing on Colaska’s application for a conditional use permit at 6 p.m. on July 19 in the Borough Assembly Chambers located at 350 E. Dahlia Ave. in Palmer.

A public comment period closed last week. The borough had received upwards of 160 total pages of public comment, according to Whisenhunt. Among other things, borough planners are looking into the “very complicated” question of traffic capacity on Sylvan, he said.

The planning commission won’t factor in what the gravel is eventually used for, Whisenhunt said. “The impacts of the operation are the same whether it gets loaded on a train and taken to Anchorage or taken up to Willow or used on the Parks Highway right there at Pittman.”

If the borough denies the permit or adds conditions that make going ahead unfeasible, that could put the borough at odds with the state and Alaska Mental Health Trust Authority’s mission to develop the land, Menefee said.

“That does become problematic,” he said. “And we would have to address that.”

Zaz Hollander

Longtime ADN reporter Zaz Hollander is based in the Mat-Su and is currently focused on coverage of the coronavirus in Alaska. She also covers the Mat-Su region, aviation and general assignments. Contact her at